Obama's Foreign Failings

COMMENTARY Global Politics

Obama's Foreign Failings

Jan 7th, 2010 12 min read
Peter Brookes

Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs

Peter helps develop and communicate The Heritage Foundation's stance on foreign and defense policy through his research and writing.

Most Americans have painfully noticed that President Obama's domestic policies aren't getting the job done with record deficits, soaring public debt and rising unemployment--not to mention the nightmarish health care debate.

Fewer, however, have probably realized the Obama administration's foreign and national security policies are flagging after a year in the White House, too, putting this country at increasing risk in an already dangerous world.

Yes, that's right: All that Obama hopey-changey, blame-America-first, anything-but-George W. Bush stuff hasn't restored, much less advanced, America's position in the world as was promised.

Unfortunately, the White House's brand of "biography-based" foreign policy just isn't cutting it so far on the big national security issues of the day such as China, North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia and Venezuela.

In fact, it's quite the opposite: Weakkneed, apologetic "Obama-plomacy" is already being exploited across the globe. Our image, standing and reputation are suffering with partners who worry about our going wobbly despite Obama's rhetorical flourishes.

And nowhere was this more recently noticeable than on his stop in China, which found even the loyal Left and media carping.

China Challenge

If you were troubled by President Obama's so-called "Wow Bow" to Emperor Akihito in Japan, you won't be any happier with the "kowtow" during his November trip to the People's Republic of China (PRC).

In the latest chapter of Team Obama's teetering-on-the-disastrous foreign policy, the president and a slew of his Cabinet secretaries roared into Asia like lions, promising a new era in U.S. diplomacy in the region.

But they left like pussycats-- accomplishing, well, a whole lot of nothing. So much for our "first Pacific president," as Obama anointed himself at the start of the eight-day, four-country swing through Asia.

The lack of good news was starkest in China, where the United States faces a raft of critical issues that needed addressing at the presidential level to get matters moved off dead-center. Sure, the joint statement that concluded the visit had a long list of areas of Sino-U.S. cooperation such as Chinese aircraft safety, public health, climate change and bumping up the number of Americans studying in the PRC. And the president, to his credit, did raise human rights issues, Tibet and freedom of expression--although somewhat sheepishly.

But a presidential visit should deliver more than that.

Obama failed to make progress on the most important issue to the United States right now--the economy. We're experiencing a $200-plus billion-a-year trade deficit with China, but no measure came out of the visit to ease that pain.

We could've seen an agreement to help level the playing field for U.S. firms doing business in China by reducing the subsidies local firms receive from the central government, undermining foreign competitiveness.

Or how about the woefully undervalued Chinese currency known as the "yuan"? Beijing "pegs" the yuan's conversion rate against the dollar, instead of allowing it to float with the market. This makes Chinese goods cheaper here and American goods more expensive there, hurting our exports. This inequity adds to the bulging trade deficit, allowing China to become the largest holder of U.S. debt--adding to a series of imbalances that could be harmful to both countries in the long run.

On security, there was also a worrisome lack of movement. China is involved in a serious military buildup--and U.S. planners are often flummoxed about the intent of it. They--not to mention America's allies and friends such as Japan, Korea and India--are especially troubled when it comes to "power projection" capabilities, such as the PRC's improving missile, naval and air forces. Chinese aircraft carriers are in our future.

Obama also flubbed a question on Taiwan, failing to immediately note our obligation under U.S. law to sell arms to the island, which China considers a renegade province. He later corrected himself, but the damage was done-- possibly creating doubt in Beijing's mind about the Washington's commitment to a peaceful and mutually agreeable resolution to Taipei's future.

Then there are matters experts wish the president hadn't touched upon, for instance, offering up Sino-American cooperation in space, where China is taking steps to challenge us for military supremacy.

And others are worried about assisting the Chinese civilian aircraft industry. Making their civilian airliners safer could benefit their military aircraft, too, which could be used against our armed forces--not to mention that Beijing is starting to export jet trainers and fighters, competing with the U.S. defense industry for customers.

There was also no noticeable traction with China on efforts to roll back North Korea's nuclear program, especially important as Beijing has more influence in Pyongyang than any other capital.

Indeed, there has been no progress since Obama entered office in dealing with nettlesome North Korea. With a nuclear and a long-range missile test already, Pyongyang has challenged Washington more in this administration's first year than all eight of the Bush administration.

Nor, arguably more urgent, was the president able to get his Chinese counterpart, President Hu Jintao, to take tougher measures on preventing Iran from joining the Mushroom Cloud Club.

Tehran Trouble

At the beginning of his term in office, Obama went out of his way to extend an unclenched fist toward Iran's mullahs, testing Tehran's diplomatic intentions and offering a new start for the long-tortured, bilateral relationship. But instead of reciprocating, Iran's theocrats have done little more than slap that outstretched hand away--repeatedly--meaning there has been no progress on the front-burner issue of Iran's nuclear program.

Fact is that after a year with Obama at the helm of the ship of state, Iran hasn't halted its nuclear program but, instead, now has enough enriched uranium on hand to make at least one nuclear weapon. Yet as of the late fall, the Obama administration still wants to give the tyrants in Tehran more time to see the error of their ways. That's just not likely, considering Tehran's 20-plus years of denial and deception over its nuclear program.

This "What, me worry?" attitude has interested parties increasingly on edge as they await the day Iran, a country that calls for the destruction of Israel and the United States and is the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism, goes nuclear.

One might even expect that U.S.. - Israeli relations would be tighter these days, considering the mutual atomic ayatollah threat. But no, instead ties are the worst they've been in, estimably, decades, making progress on Middle East Peace Process even less likely.

And where was the leader of the Free World when Iranians were demonstrating--and dying--for liberty on Tehran's streets this year? Mostly dithering with talking points, trying not to appear to be "meddling," as the president put it. At one rally this fall, according to press reports, an anti-government protestor carried a sign, directed at President Obama: "Either you're with them [the Iranian government] or you're with us."

Acting boldly and decisively doesn't seem to be in this administration's DNA, as Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal waited three months before Obama acted on the general's proposed strategy.

As maddening as that sort of delay and uncertainty is for our troops and our NATO and Coalition allies and encouraging for our foes, there is another nagging problem.

Afghanistan Anxiety

Despite all the Obama administration's chin-rubbing and hand-wringing about how to proceed in Afghanistan, the president hasn't even been to the war torn country since entering the White House--or before making the fateful decision about the new strategy and troop levels.

In fact, his last visit to Afghanistan was a quick two-day stop in July 2008 as a senator and presidential candidate. (He hadn't been there previously either, despite serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.)

Shouldn't he want the benefit of seeing things firsthand before making an important decision such as, say, committing more troops to battle? But President Obama, the U.S. commander in chief, has not, even though the situation on his watch in Afghanistan has been described at times as "serious," "dire," even "deteriorating" by a host of people in the know.

So Obama has been relying on the views of others, received at numerous meetings amid the creature comforts of the White House in Washington--some 7,000 miles from where the action is in Kabul. Perhaps that is why it took him so long to make a decision about McChrystal's strategy.

All of this is especially odd, considering that, in his first year, he's reportedly the most-traveled president in American history, visiting more than 20 countries around the globe.

The surely jet-lagged Obama has been to France, the Czech Republic, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Russia, Italy, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Trinidad and Ghana (yes, Ghana), to name a few. Plus, a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, to plead for the 2016 Olympic Games for his hometown of Chicago, which he didn't deliver.

And in December, Obama returned to Copenhagen for the international climate change conference while on his way back from Oslo for this year's Nobel ceremonies to pick up his oddly awarded Peace Prize.

But while racking up the frequent-flyer miles (courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer), he hasn't set foot in Afghanistan. (President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney made five visits to Afghanistan alone.) Somehow, for all his pro-troop rhetoric here, Obama hasn't seen it fit to visit our 60,000-plus brave men and women in Afghanistan, despite numerous reports of declining troop morale.

While going into harm's way, these men and women need to know their president believes in them and their mission; that they will get what they need to fight; that someone is looking after their wounded comrades and loved ones back home.

And they should hear it from the president in person.

But then again, when he visited South Korea in November, Obama didn't even venture to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) --the misnamed North-South Korea dividing line. (It's anything but demilitarized.) Instead, he visited with U.S. troops at Osan Air Base, 50 miles from the infamous 38th parallel, telling them "You guys make a pretty good photo op."

But beyond the seemingly self serving, patriotic choreography, perhaps he was afraid that standing alongside our troops posted at the DMZ would upset North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, resulting in more provocations.

No real surprise there: This administration would rather avoid any type of confrontation, asserting a foreign policy vision of "if we're nice to them, they'll be nice to us."

And, perhaps, is this policy nowhere more evident than in the current U.S. relationship with Russia.

Russian Risk

From the looks of it, the Kremlin hasn't bought into the whole "reset button" gimmick the White House put forward as a framework for the Obama administration's new Russia policy. Despite the olive branch repeatedly offered to Russia, Moscow clearly has its eyes on matters other than better relations with Washington such as regaining its role as a world power--no matter who occupies the White House.

In support of this, Russia is involved in a military buildup with President Dmitry Medvedev calling for "comprehensive rearmament" of the once-mighty Russian armed forces, despite global economic woes.

Russia is also in the business of selling arms to potential foes of America, including China, Iran, Syria and Venezuela. Of proliferation concern, Moscow is building Tehran's first nuclear reactor and has offered them to Caracas, too.

Even more troubling in the eyes of many, the Obama-viks knuckled under to the Russkies on the proposed, Europe-based, Bush-era missile defense system (see "Another Foreign-Policy Fumble," December 2009).

Our Eastern and Central European allies and friends now increasingly feel Obama is abandoning them as he acquiesces to the growing shadow of a Russian sphere of influence in Moscow's old territory. In fact, America's fawning over Russia since Obama entered office has left these nations, especially Poland, wondering about our commitment to their security under NATO, in stark contrast to the Bush years.

The fact that Obama sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Germany for the November celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall-- instead of going himself--only bolstered the notion of seeming indifference.

Not to mention, Washington has fully engaged Moscow despite the fact Russia has increased troop levels and announced new bases on the Georgian territory of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in violation of the 2008 cease fire pact. Obama has also put NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine on ice.

It's no wonder some 20 former senior officials from the region boldly expressed concern about current U.S. policies in their part of the world in an open letter to President Obama last summer.

Despite White House efforts, the Kremlin clearly hasn't hit Obama's reset button, aimed toward improving relations and cooperation on issues such as Iran's nuclear program. For Moscow, a "reboot" in relations instead means a significant retreat for Washington's interests in Europe and elsewhere in the face of a resurgent Russia.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what the current administration seems willing to do. Worse yet, it's not just there, but closer to home as well.

Losing Latin America

With dictators on the rise, democracy under assault and foreign powers making inroads in Latin America, it's not evident the Obamanistas have a plan for dealing with it, other than with more of its "have a Coke and a smile" approach to foreign policy.

Topping the list of issues, not surprisingly, is Venezuela, a major thorn in our side for some time now, which has only gotten worse over the last year.

Venezuela's caudillo President Hugo Chavez continues nationalizing the economy, muzzling the media and corralling any political opposition into his one-party state.

But that's not all.

This year, the Chavistas were fingered providing weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a narco-terrorist group, which has been fighting the Colombian government, a major U.S. ally, for years.

Adding to the problem, a U.S. government report claims the Chavez regime is turning a blind eye to FARC cocaine trafficking through Venezuela, which finds its way here--and elsewhere.

Chavez is leading, and in some cases bankrolling, Latin American, anti-U.S. authoritarians in Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia and even El Salvador, fancying himself the new leader of the Latin Left.

Venezuela has also contracted for $6 billion worth of Russian weapons, setting the region on edge. More worrisome, Chavez is looking to get into the nuclear industry, courtesy of his Russian friends.

Chazez is also pals with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both having sworn an "axis of unity" to oppose the United States. It would surprise no one if Tehran were to pitch in and help Caracas with its atomic ambitions.

With press reporting a regular Venezuela-Syria-Iran flight, Caracas could be helping Tehran insert agents, military advisors and terrorists, such as Hezbollah, into the region for work with Iranian "friends" in Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua--and against the United States.

Despite all of this, Washington decided this year to send our ambassador back to Caracas after Chavez expelled our envoy in 2008.

In Honduras, the Obama administration was almost silent on the constitutional power-grab by Chavez ally President Manuel Zelaya. Then, remarkably, it chose to side with the ousted authoritarian-in-the-making over democratic forces.

In addition to doing little to deal with anti-gringo politicos rising in Latin America, Team Obama isn't doing much to help our amigos, either. Both Colombia and Panama are still waiting on free-trade agreements, and just south of the border, Mexico could certainly use more help in fighting the drug cartels.

Despite promises of a better approach to foreign policy than President George W. Bush, Latin America hasn't gotten better on Obama's shift. Most of what we--and the region--are hearing from the administration on our Latin America policy is silence.

Reality Check

Promises to improve America's standing in the world and our foreign policy helped Obama gain the White House, but that hasn't happened, despite his endless globe-trotting.

Foreign policy is a tough business, but Obama clearly over-promised on foreign affairs during the campaign--and, so far, he's under-delivered as president. The president wrongly thought he could turn his perceived acclaim abroad into results, advancing American interests. That clearly hasn't been the case. Apparently, he and his advisors forgot that countries act on national interest, not popularity polls. Indeed, his foreign policy "successes" such as Iraq and al Qaeda strikes in Pakistan are little more than continuations of Bush-era policies, which is driving his hard-core supporters on the Left insane.

Like many liberals in the past, he has come face-to-face with the reality of the dog-eat-dog world of international politics, where some of the pooches in the doggie playground are nothing more than self-interested pit bulls. Unfortunately, if current trends continue, we're going to end up on the wrong end of someone's canine teeth.

As many have correctly noted over the years, getting domestic policy wrong can cost people their jobs--and it has. But getting foreign policy wrong can cost people their lives--and it will.

The world needs U.S. leadership to deal with a litany of international challenges, but more than that, this country needs strong leadership--and policies--on international affairs, something, regrettably, Obama hasn't served up yet.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

First Appeared in Townhall Magazine